Colorado church criminal case concludes: The Church of England Newspaper, Sept 24, 2010 p 6. September 25, 2010Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Colorado, Property Litigation.
First published in The Church of England Newspaper.
The leader of Colorado’s largest breakaway congregation, the Rev. Donald Armstrong has reached an out of court agreement with the Pueblo County District Attorney to settle a 20 count criminal indictment accusing him of stealing over £250,000 from his former Episcopal Church congregation.
The plea deal ends the long running ecclesial and personal war between Mr. Armstrong and Bishop Robert O’Neill of Colorado that has bitterly divided Anglicans in Colorado Springs and consumed £2 million—over half—of the diocese’s endowment, and cost the parish almost £700,000.
On Sept 17, District Attorney Bill Thiebaut announced that 19 felony counts of theft would be dismissed in exchange for Mr. Armstrong pleading “no contest” to one class-three felony, the theft of $15,000 or more. Final adjudication on this last charge, however would be withheld, and if Mr. Armstrong complies with the terms of his probation set by the court, the conviction will be expunged from the court’s record.
Mr. Armstrong also entered an ‘Alford Plea’ to a single misdemeanor charge. Under American law an Alford Plea is when a defendant asserts his innocence but admits that sufficient evidence exists to convict him of the offense. Under Colorado law, Mr. Armstrong will plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge, but does not have to specifically admit to the guilt itself. The plea agreement acknowledges there is no factual basis to the misdemeanor charge, but Mr. Armstrong accepts it to obtain the benefit of the plea agreement.
After the agreement was announced the parish released a statement welcoming the District Attorney’s decision saying it brings “to conclusion this long and torturous ordeal for our congregation.”
The parish stated it believed the “controversies within the larger denominational church were the catalyst for the Diocese’s investigation and complaint, for the purpose of silencing our bold and successful defense of orthodoxy.”
It stated the “disparity between the magnitude of charges” lodged against Mr. Armstrong and the “final content of the plea agreement vindicates” Mr. Armstrong and the church’s stewardship of its funds.
However, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Colorado, Larry Hitt, said Mr. Armstrong’s entry of a ‘no contest’ plea to the felony charge and his “effective guilty plea to a class 1 misdemeanor theft charge constitute a tacit acknowledgment of the truth of the criminal charges against him.”
Mr. Hitt stated “Armstrong’s theft constituted an abuse of trust and a betrayal by a priest of the church. His unlawful actions and efforts to divert the focus of the dispute away from his own behavior caused harm and suffering for the church, its clergy, its membership and the poor whom we are called to serve.”
In 2007, Mr. Armstrong’s congregation Grace & St Stephens quit the diocese of Colorado, joining the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The diocese responded by deposing Mr. Armstrong and litigation ensued over control of the property. On March 24, 2009 a court awarded ownership of the multi-million dollar church to the diocese. In its quest to retrieve the buildings, the diocese had accused Mr. Armstrong of tax fraud and misappropriating church funds to pay for his children’s university education.
However, in November 2008 Mr. Armstrong’s attorney Dennis Hartley reported that an investigation by Federal tax authorities had found no wrongdoing.
Mr. Armstrong told The Church of England Newspaper he was pleased by the outcome. “This is really over,” he said.
A spokesman for CANA told CEN Mr. Armstrong remains a “priest in good standing” with CANA, and that Bishop Martyn Minns “will soon be making a visit to the parish in Colorado Springs to more fully understand this difficult and sad situation.”